Like open fire hydrants and Mediterranean fruit flies, a new set of DJ Khaled collabs with a sleek, star-crowded full-length to follow is the surest sign of spring’s slide into summer. DJ Khaled all but created The Event Album, just as Jerry Bruckheimer or James Cameron-crafted Event Cinema. Only Khaled’s is more of an annual/semi-annual bash with buddies bellying up to the bar and the loudest members of the party toasting the longest. Drake will be there, as will Lil Wayne. Khaled will randomly shout verbal tics and all will be right on mainstream rap’s shiniest planet.
Which brings us to this week’s semi-surprise release, “Khaled Khaled,” one with (yup) Drake and Weezy, additional old friends such as Jay-Z and Puff Daddy, and new collaborators like DaBaby and Megan Thee Stallion. There’s even a last-minute addition to the track-and-guest list for the sake of thrills and chills, with Cardi B jumping on board as of April 29, after he’d already tweeted out cover art without her a day earlier, then amended it with a “101% done update.”
Through all of this, Khaled manages to scream out “We the Best Music” (his label’s name) and “Another one” so often that it becomes a rote equivalent to yelling “movie” in a crowded firehouse. Even during the calm, flute-y orchestration of the opening “Thankful,” Khaled disrupts his own peace with no better reason than to huckster. You could almost hear Dionne Warwick asking, ‘Why must this man repeat ‘DJ Khaled’ over and over when we know whose record we streamed?” And she wouldn’t be wrong.
So, yes, of course, “Khaled Khaled” is overly boastful and garrulous, a slick pop/hip-hop jewel polished so brightly and cleanly, its shine nearly blinds the listener to some of its subtlest nuances and oddly raw raps (e.g., Nas’ dry-icy drone on “Sorry Not Sorry”). Yet, like a diamond, there are a few sharp edges that shockingly cut their way through the see-through glassiness of “Khaled Khaled,” along with some well-placed surprises.
Starting with the light and sinewy Jeremih, whose story of salvation flows with the cool breeze of the aforementioned “Thankful,” and ending with the rolling holy dancehall of “Where I Come From” (with legendary reggae vocalists Buju Banton, Capleton, Bounty Killer, and Barrington Levy), “Khaled Khaled” may be the name-above-the-title DJ’s best and most holistic record. All you need do is ignore your host, and enjoy.
The first surprise is how hip-hop’s greatest huckster, a spirited man in the mold of PT Barnum, managed to keep this project a mystery until April 27’s Instagram drip of its cover photo (a Muslim Khaled, kneeling in prayer, with hands folded, surrounded by his children), followed the next day by its back cover and song titles and guest list. In Khaled World, this is almost silent promotion, more of a bug in one’s ear, than his usual hammer across one’s skull. Fact is, there wasn’t even one 2021 single in advance of “Khaled Khaled” (Drake’s somnolent collaborations, “Popstar” and “Greece,” were released in July 2020).
To go with this softer promotion, there is, oddly enough, a subtlety to be witnessed in more than a few of “KK’s” key tracks. And the supple pleasures found inside “Khaled Khaled” are ample. “Sorry Not Sorry (Harmonies by the Hive),” with its background vocals from Beyoncé, and its raps-among-rivals-turned-friends Jay-Z and Nas, is juicily melodic, relaxed-fit hip-hop merely rimmed by AutoTune — just as a good martini is but touched by the grace of invisible vermouth.
“Hear ye, hear ye, only kings stand near me,” announces Nas, the self-titled “Cryptocurrency Scarface,” before yielding the floor to Hova and his nicely dicey lyrical play on riding the beat. Cardi B, too, plays well with her musical accompaniment – the icy string sounds provided by DJ Khaled with Cool & Dre – on the chilly “Big Paper.” Credit where credit’s due: Khaled is a good producer-host who loves his vocal charges/guests, and makes sure they’re well taken care of.
The panther-pacing, rubbery funk of “Let It Go” allows a higher pitched Justin Bieber to croon elegantly and ruminate spiritually about the “things I can’t control,” while the bassy voice of 21 Savage highlights the track’s low end, beautifully. As far as crooners go, Justin Timberlake is given the freest reign he’s had in some time on the “Just Be” ballad. While his lyrics aptly describe his voice (“Smooth and easy, just flowing”), his vocals move from deeply burrowed baritone soul to a high and mighty warbling falsetto with equally grand sonic touches. And for the record, Khaled produced this one on his own. Note to Timberlake – drop the cartoon anthems and the old man faux-country routine and get Khaled cracking on your next solo jawn.
The same sense of empathetic, grand production and orchestral touches allow singers H.E.R. and Bryson Tiller, along with rapper Meek Mill, hip-hop’s first shot at a glorious waltz on the pensive ballad “I Can Have It All,” and its sensitive (not boastful) take on rising proudly from the pavement to the penthouse. With that, you get a sense that Khaled was in on the lyrical storytelling, creating (or curating) a sense of humble uplift so radically different from his usual glitz. Then again, Khaled is a man possessed of rich religious spirit, a devotion to his family, and pride in an origin story that includes coming up in New Orleans as a Palestinian, loving Arabic music as much as he did R&B.
Even the Derek and the Dominoes’ rock-out sample that kicks off the chic, aggressive “I Did It” with an un-AutoTuned Post Malone singing out strong and full bodied (a rarity on his own records) sounds as if Khaled tailored his tone to suit the vocalist, rather than his usual other-way-around. With that, the team of Megan Thee Stallion, Lil Baby and DaBaby provide their own sets of signature voiced punctuation; you could tell who each rapper is from the first breath. Quite an achievement.
“Khaled Khaled” isn’t exactly perfect… but it’s close. The turgid “Every Chance I Get” (featuring Lil Baby and Lil Durk) goes nowhere, and even the DJ’s usual efforts with Rick Ross sound blah. Skip those. The rest of this album is DJ Khaled’s finest achievement as a songwriter, producer, curator and host. Now if he could just stop yelling out and putting his “brand” out there… that would be the truest stunner of all.